Lawmakers convene in the House Chamber at the Maine State House on March 17, 2020, in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — An effort to end at-will employment in Maine failed in the House of Representatives on Thursday, although a narrow majority of the Democratic-led chamber approved an alternate version that would study the issue.

The proposal from Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, would have been a historic change in Maine’s employment laws by requiring a three-step discipline process before an employee is fired. Among U.S. states, only Montana requires employers to have “just cause” when letting an employee go after a six-month probationary period.

An amendment to the bill would have immediate firings to instances in which an employee violates state law, endangers safety, harms the business’ reputation or for another reason outlined in that business’ employee handbook. It would not protect employees from being let go if an employer downsizes, restructures or if they are a seasonal business.

But that did not interest lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who rejected it in a bipartisan 99-35 vote. Democrats advanced an alternate version in a 71-63 vote to authorize a study on the issue. It now goes to the Senate and faces further action in both chambers.

The bill faced opposition from Gov. Janet Mills and Maine’s business lobby, which saw the bill as a top issue and teased court challenges. It comes as businesses are still navigating the effects of the pandemic. Hospitality industries are struggling to lure workers back in as pandemic restrictions have lifted ahead summer, even as the tourism industry sees signs of recovery.

Opponents leaned on those elements, saying the proposal would hurt businesses trying to recover and would be hampered by not being able to fire employees freely.

“If you have an employee that is consistently not performing up to the standards that the business sees fit, then they should have the right to terminate their employment,” said Rep. Joshua Morris, R-Turner.

Supporters said the ending of at-will employment could encourage people to take jobs and that the pandemic had highlighted the importance of protecting employees.

“We’re considering it from the point of view of an employer, but most people I know are employees, and they’ve only been employees,” said Rep. Sophie Warren, I-Scarborough. “I hope we’ll remember them and consider what their rights are in this situation.”